The history of the Mortal Kombat franchise is one that’s comprised of some very high peaks and a few minor troughs, punctuated by moments of incandescent lunacy. After the world-beating phenomenon that was 1993’s series pinnacle Mortal Kombat 2, the franchise has slowly stepped further and further away from the core elements that made the original two games so broadly appealing. After the introduction of Animalities and a run button in MK3, to Deadly Alliance’s full 3D movement and Konquest Mode, to the well-meaning but largely redundant Create-A-Fatality mode in Armageddon; the recipe was always different, but it was apparent that everyone’s most favoured ingredient was brazen (brazed?) overkill.

It’s definitely worth pointing out that Mortal Kombat 4 deserves no scorn at all – as for some (this reviewer included) it’s still the best game in the series – so it’s most encouraging to note that it’s MK4 that MK 2011 feels the most like. It doesn’t take place on a 3D plain and doesn’t feature MK4’s droppable weaponry, but the uber-slick presentation, instantly accessible control scheme and very strong emphasis on witty bloodletting make this feel like the most focused MK title in aeons. This ninth game sees Mortal Kombat’s esteemed co-creator Ed Boon return to hands-on development duties, and his presence is evident almost immediately.

Much of our hands-on time with the game was spent furiously trying to execute Fatalities, and although we weren’t successful – no matter how many times we tried to pull-off Skorpion’s classic Block-Up-Up finisher in the belief that it would suddenly become 1993 again – luckily one of NetherRealm’s finest was on hand to give us a few sneak previews. We’ll keep the details of them entirely secret (if only because jet-black humour is back in play and seeing every last one of them first-hand is a must) but to put it simply… they’re back. One of them – a Pit Fatality that can only be executed on an underground subway level – is thigh-slappingly hilarious and stomach-churningly savage at the same time; an instant classic, basically.

Because the early MK games did it so well – creating, in the process, a synonymous piece of the Mortal Kombat pie – the return of this whacked-out, strangely light-hearted approach to brutal violence could not be any more welcome. Happily, this larky tonal return is coupled with a spartan, stripped-down gameplay one. Although Deadly Alliance and Deception had more than their fair share of devotees, their dauntingly complex combo systems (along with switchable fighting styles) have been scrapped in favour of a new mechanic that’s completely immediate. It isn’t a system that involves memorising complicated button combinations; it’s all about stringing short bursts of small moves together, creating a neat halfway point between the old and the new games.

Capcom’s spectacular recent revival of its Street Fighter series almost certainly inspired MK’s new back-to-basics approach, and a shrewd variation of one of Street Fighter IV’s finest innovations (the Ultra combo meter) is present here too. MK’s Special meter is split into three tiers. Fill one tier and one of your character’s primary special move is rendered twice as powerful; fill the second and you can execute a combo Breaker; fill the third and you can perform a devastating X-Ray Combo Attack. These moves are basically mid-point Fatalities, all rendered in pin-sharp X-Ray vision, and all featuring the snapping of various bones in gruesome slow-motion. The best thing about them? They’re easily as amusing as the Fatalities.

It’s rather too early to tell yet if this newfangled Mortal Kombat is going to scale the same sky-scraping heights as Capcom’s luminous pride and joy, but one thing is for certain: if you’re an apathetic ex-fan with a suspicion that the franchise is no longer worthy of your time, expect the tide to turn come April. Mortal Kombat has rebooted itself so many times that countless gamers don’t know where they currently stand with it, but this year’s edition is trying to be so much more than just another reboot: it wants to be the definitive Mortal Kombat. On this evidence, the prognosis is very good indeed.

Watch the Mortal Kombat “Skorpion” trailer here:

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